18 November 2010

Cybils Nominee: Summer Birds

This review comes to you from an avowed Lepidopterphobe (also known as someone who has a fear of butterflies.) But personal irrational fear aside, I could not read this stunning book and let it go without comment.

Summer Birds tells the true story of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a groundbreaking entomologist in 17th century Germany. The understanding that butterflies and moths are hatched from eggs and undergo metamorphosis from caterpillars to winged insects seems like basic scientific knowledge now (not to mention a great literary device. Imagine how blah The Very Hungry Caterpillar would be if he was formed from mud instead of that promising egg on a leaf. Although watching him evilly munch his way through a week might be fun.) But at one point the idea would have been construed as the work of the Devil. Conventional wisdom said that insects were evil and formed from mud. Maria proved otherwise, through simple observation and meticulous record keeping. That a young girl had the enthusiasm and patience to devote her life to studying insects and other small animals such as frogs and lizards, makes for a rich subject in this well told and exquisitely illustrated book.

Maria Merian was fortunate in the fact that she possessed not only the talent to document her observations, but was encouraged to do so by the adults in her life. The book starts with Merian as a thirteen year old, precocious and thoughtful and highly driven. When she is not catching and observing insects, she is imagining what the world holds for her, and all the marvels that she will see and paint when she is grown-up. An author's note (which for once is not written way above the comprehension of the child who might be reading the book) indicates that Merian did indeed travel the world and publish her findings. Some of her paintings have even graced postage stamps in the United States.

Much like the story of child archaeologist Mary Anning, part of this book's appeal for a young reader is in the fact that the protagonist is so young herself when she begins to grow into her passion.

Another source of appeal is the artwork. Giant portraits of butterflies aside, the illustrations by Julie Paschkis have an ethereal quality about them which suggests the flow of metamorphosis. The illustrations alternate between the accurate detail of Maria's scientific drawings, and the superstitions surrounding the mystery of the natural world. They are fanciful, colorful, and exquisite.
Books about girls who like science are always a plus, and in this instance we get a girl who is not only enthusiastic, but ahead of her time. Summer Birds is a great introduction to the fascinating and fulfilling life of an amazing woman who paid attention to Nature's secrets and then shared them with the world.

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